Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Walt and Skeezix: 1925 1926, A Review

I came across this book the other day, and found it full of both biographical tidbits and historical stuff from the early days of Cartooning, so on a whim bought it. I say on a whim, but in actuality I picked it up, flipped through it, and repeated that process several times. In retrospect, that's the way I've picked up most of my favorite books... they pick me.

The cover art has a warmth of color that can only be found in vintage comic strips. Take a well done comic strip, print it in four colors on newsprint, and let it sit for several decades, and magic happens. The soft yellow of the paper enhances the colors in such a way that the appeal to an Artist such as myself. I felt the same way about my favorite biography of George Herriman. The art pulled at me, and without even reading any strips, I eventually purchased the book, and took it home. There it sat for a few days until i found the time to pick it up.

I'm really glad I did.

This is actually the third book in the series. I thought it was the second, and that I'd only have to run out and get one other, but no... now I've got to find enough money for two more books, because after having read this one, I want so much to go back and see how the story developed. And yes, it is a story. Reading a comic strip in the newspapers can be a good bit of fun that lasts a few seconds, maybe a day if it's particularly good, but some strips just rally work well as a book. Walt and Skeezix are the characters from Gasoline Alley. You've probably heard of Gasoline Alley, although honestly I haven't seen the strip outside of professional books and journals, and even then, you usually see the gorgeous color Sunday strips. I had no idea what to expect, and that may have helped, actually.

The book started out with great stuff.... biographical information on Cartoonist Frank King, and then a wonderful look at the strip's merchandise over the years. Nostalgia, history, Americana... good fun for me!

Then the strips... a very slow start as I wrapped my mind around strips written for a generation long ago. This is America before the great Depression, and it is captured really well. The strips at first appear muddy, until one realises that they were probably printed even larger than we see in this book. This was also the Comic's heyday, when Creators had space to play, and were true artists. The strips are also longer, with more words, and not necessarily a strong gag. Sometimes the 'gags' are very subtle, and again, we must realise that these were written in a day before television, before the Moon landing, before iPods and all the gadgetry we have today.

In Frank King's America, even the town mechanic has a servant, and this is one point which makes me wonder: is the portrayal of African American servants considered too much for today's audience? True, the appearance and way of speaking are very innapropriate by today's standards... the maids appear to be in black face, and their mannerisms are often made fun of. To be honest, though, Rachel the Maid was the first character to grow on me in this book. The Author does not portray her as a stereotype, but instead she is a very real character, and the first in this book to be rounded out. She is warm, smart, and funny in her own way, and a darn hard worker. Some may be offended, but in Rachel and Mandy we are seeing a very different life for African Americans... a big step up from slavery to paid servants, but they face their struggles with a quiet dignity, and don't complain about their lot in life. As Walt says often concerning his adopted son, "Skeezix couldn't get along without Rachel", who helped raise him.

What is most interesting in this book, in light of today's troubles, is the land speculation, boom, and bubble burst of Florida in the twenties. It's almost comforting to see that this has all happened before, and that maybe we'll get through this economic nightmare we are currently in. In this book there is much humour in the land speculation of Florida, where buildings go up overnight, and paupers on Tuesday are Millionares by Friday. Land becomes so valuable that swamps are drained and islands are made just so more people could buy more land that they could then sell later. Amongst all this sudden and inflated wealth come rumours that the bubble is about to burst, and even then, the buying and selling continue. I'm curious if all this leads, or helps lead to, the great depression a few years later?

The strips grew on me, as I mentioned, until I got heavily involved in the characters, and couldn't wait to see what happened next. The book became ver hard to put down, actually, which was a big surprise. It really did creap up on me, and suck me in. The story is basically Walt being a confirmed batchelor, raising a child who was left on his doorstep, while falling in love with a lovely young widow. At the same time, his married friends tell him to maintain his batchelorhood, all the time laughing at his naivete. He's convinved that getting married will be the best thing, and that everyone should get married. What's most amusing is the portrayal of the widow Phyliss who seems so conniving and devious! She openly admits to roping Walt in, and throughout the two years of strips 'plays' him like a cheap fiddle. It's almost enough to make one dislike her heavily, but somehow she redeams herself by being down to earth at times, and King convinces us that she truly loves Walt. She just can't help 'moulding' him. Oy...

The early American stuff is great as well. People openly dumping their garbage in the vacant lot in town, and cars that are so simple to repair, and the RFD, a Rural Free Delivery system that aided the post office in providing mail to small rural towns. A really fascinating look at times long gone... a simpler, less harried life.

I could go on, but this post is getting way too long... All I can say is that this book is heartily recommended to comic strip fans, and those interested in the early 1900's, especially the grat Cartoonists of the time.

I cannot wait to read book one... when I can raise the dough, of course. :0)

JOHN :0)

Walt and Skeezix is published by Drawn & Quarterly Publications. This volume contains extra material by Chris Ware, Jeet Heer, and Tom Samuelson.


Brian Hughes said...

"...is the portrayal of African American servants considered too much for today's audience?"

I really hope so John, otherwise America's got a lot more problems than I realised.

John said...

I am referring to the 'portrayal' of such characters. We are all hopefully aware of this country's sordid past, but the portrayal is not realistic, but exxagerated. I forget the name for this type of image, but it was popular in cartoons and other print media at the early part of this century.

I've actually met collectors of such material, who do not want to forget how their people were once treated, and portrayed. Others of course would rather have the material burned, to erase the insult once done.

THAT is what I am refering to. A very funny TV show from the old days was Amos & Andy. I loved the show as a kid, and it was funny with a capital F. However, it has since been deemed unfit for our sensitive consumption, and so another piece of 'history' has been lost. Books, art, television... any of these can fall to the Censors and be lost for various reasons. Yes, times were different then, but what are we losing by pretending they didn't exist?

JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


I totally agree. From a socio-historic perspective it's important to keep this sort of stuff in the public domain. As for whether it should be acceptable to modern audiences (other than for comparitive reasons) well, let's hope not.

dunebug1 said...

Hey! You also need to get "Sundays with Walt and Skeezix", a beautiful, full-size reprint of about a hundred Gasoline Alley sunday strips. That book is huge (and a big pricey!), and also designed by Chris Ware, like the book you've got. It's published by Sunday Press Books.

John said...

Thanks for the tip, Dunebug1!

I'll definitely look for it, although I haven't seen any Walt & Skeezix books in any bookstore I've looked in. And if it's pricey, I guess I'll just have to put it on my wishlist.

Cheers, JOHN :0)

PS Sorry for the late reply but I've had to replace my harddrive. I'm a PC... and it hurts!